Movie Review: BULLHEAD as Brutal, Confused Noir Tragedy

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Bullhead is director Michael Roskam’s attempt at blending film noir with a far more internal character study.  On that noir note: it works only intermittently.  As Roskam introduces us to the world of illegal beef hormone trading, he conjures up a frighteningly opaque moral landscape; the hows and whys connecting Matthias Schoenaerts’ tortured protagonist to a group of Flemish gangsters never fully cohere.  It’s exciting, at first, trying to piece together why a federal agent is killed, or how a police informer will try to play both cop and criminal against each other, or how these intrigues might tighten the noose around Schoenaerts’ neck.

Ultimately, though, Roskam never lets us out of the dark, which means no real resolution to the crime story.  It’s telling that Michael Mann is a big fan of Bullhead because it shares some of the flaws of his Public Enemies: ambiguity that turns into unsatisfying narrative shorthand, main characters that vanish for long stretches with little rhyme or reason, and key plot points left deliberately unresolved.  For all of Roskam’s filmmaking chops – and the combination of stylistic artistry and technical precision here recalls the great David Fincher – his screenwriting acumen left this viewer wanting.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is, as a character study, Bullhead is far more effective and absorbing.  Roskam wants to illustrate the perils of arrested development, and he does so through his two leads, Jeroen Perceval and Matthias Schoenaerts.  They play, respectively, Diederik and Jacky, two former best friends now working for rival criminal operations.  As children, something ghastly happened to Jacky (it’s worse than you could imagine), and circumstances kept Diederik from making it right.

At age thirty, no man is any better off.  Diederik lives in constant shame of his actions, and Perceval shows him trying to compensate by looking for affection anywhere he can get it.  When he’s working for the Flemish crooks, he’s a dutiful, precise criminal enforcer; when he’s informing on his bosses to the police, he’s just as thorough and helpful.  Neither mode is a front: the guilt he feels towards Jacky is just so great that he wants to atone for his sins by pleasing everyone he can.

And here’s the thing: one look at Jacky tells us immediately why Diederik can’t forgive himself.  Jacky is ‘roided out, juiced on hormones not dissimilar from the stuff he gives his cattle, and constantly vibrating; he resembles less a person than a vein just before it bursts.  We half-expect him to attack everyone he meets, be it with his brother Stieve or Diederik or his aging mother, and his menace gives Bullhead‘s violence real impact; the brutality is sudden and final, and it only leaves Jacky more confused and alone.

However, Schoenaerts never loses sight of the kid buried under Jacky’s neuroses and muscle mass.  Everything Jacky does – his steroid use, his aggression, his paranoia – links directly to that one bad day: he lashes out first so no one can ever hurt him again.  The irony is that Jacky’s defense mechanisms have so emotionally crippled him that he ends up pushing away anyone semi-close to him; for reasons best left unexplained, he tentatively pursues a young store clerk (Jeanne Dandoy), but the circuits in his brain are so frayed that he barely understands why he’s attracted to her.  That goes double for the twisty crime scheme that envelops him, and during long stretches of the film, Schoenaerts damn near overcomes Roskam’s narrative elisions.  If Jacky can’t figure out what’s going on (let alone why he feels the way he feels), then why should we?

Bullhead ends in a flurry of bloody, unsatisfying mayhem; we leave Bullhead somehow knowing less about Jacky’s world than we did going into the picture.  But there’s real power here, driven through by the strength of Perceval, Schoenaerts, and Roskam. They make Bullhead more than the sum of its disappointing parts; I can’t wait to see their next movie.

Image and Drafthouse’s Blu-ray looks phenomenal; Roskam’s razor-sharp images have wonderful depth and texture.  The immersive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track throbs along like a heartbeat.

Supplements are plentiful.  Roskam contributes a thoughtful audio commentary that duplicates little of the information from the “Making of Bullhead” featurette and his additional video interview.  We also get a great interview with Schoenaerts as well as Roskam and Schoenaerts’ short film The One Thing to Do.  The Blu-ray rounds things off with a trailer and a booklet featuring appraisals from Michael Mann and Udo Kier, and the disc contains a digital copy and reversible cover art.

Bullhead doesn’t deserve the level of acclaim that its Academy Award-nominated status (for Best Foreign Film) has granted it, though the acting and direction go a long way towards solidifying its reputation.  It’s a good film that will, I’d wager, pave the way for a great one.

Bullhead is available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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